Meet the New God

Check the nightstand of any adventurous young Christian in
America these days and you’re likely to find a dog-eared Bible,
some daily inspirations, even a copy of the recent sleeper hit
The Gospel According to Tony Soprano. On top of the pile,
though, bookmarked by yesterday’s church bulletin, chances are
you’ll come across a title by Donald Miller — a 34-year-old
insider who has lately made it his mission to shake the foundations
of his fellow evangelicals with a string of witty, provocative
memoirs. Judging by the intensity of the Jesus-oriented blog and
print buzz about him, Miller is either bent on saving the faithful
from their own dead-end faith or he’s spilling ink in the service
of Satan.

Like many of his readers, Miller grew up a fundamentalist
Christian (a Southern Baptist from Texas), then did stints as an
ardent Young Republican, a doorknocker for Christ, and a youth
minister in a suburban megachurch. But somewhere along the road to
old-school salvation, he took a sharp turn to the left. Miller’s
three books — Blue Like Jazz, Searching for God Knows
What
, and the revised, reissued Through Painted
Deserts
— track this trajectory from his conservative
beginnings to his current incarnation as, by his own account, a
rebel evangelical who votes Green, likes to iron out his theology
over beers, and horrifies red-state Bush zealots by championing the
likes of MoveOn.org on his Web site.

As it happens, those dissident credentials put Miller in
increasingly like-minded company. The rise of such American-style
phenomena as marathon prayer rings around abortion clinics,
right-wing smear campaigns on the United Nations, and faith-based
attacks on science has launched a backlash — not only among
political opponents, but within the ranks of the church itself.
Call it a family fight.

The evangelical movement has a long history of schisms, but most
splinter sects have pushed the church toward conservatism. In this
case, ‘seekers’ in the twenty- to thirty-something set have grown
disillusioned with a formulaic, institutional approach to religion
and are in search of a more relevant spirituality. They’re finding
— or in some cases, founding — ’emergent’ churches: breakaway
congregations that embrace a more wide-minded doctrine, a God who
doesn’t by nature wave a flag or endorse wars, and a deep
skepticism about the political agenda of the radical Christian
right. And the kind of anti-establishment spirituality that’s
spelled out in the gospel according to Donald Miller.

It’s a gospel delivered in stylish language; Miller’s an avowed
fan of Kerouac, Thoreau, and Shakespeare, with a penchant for
humorous anecdotes and earnest, meandering riffs on such topics as
how to go to church without getting angry and why being a better
yuppie won’t get you any grace with Jesus.

Miller is no scholar or seminarian — he did audit some classes
at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where he lives — but that
doesn’t stop him from lacing the light stuff with a heavy dose of
intellectually challenging interpretations of Scripture, especially
in the middle passages of Searching for God Knows What,
his most sophisticated collection. In essence, he appeals to
disillusioned Christians (and this is what ticks off the orthodox)
to abandon today’s highly commercialized,
salvation-in-10-easy-steps version of the faith in order to fall
passionately, almost primally in love with Jesus.

And make no mistake — Miller’s call to the altar is all about
Jesus. His Jesus, like the Jesus of other voice-in-the-wilderness
authors such as Anne Lamott (Traveling Mercies), Chris
Seay (author of the Soprano hit), and Lauren Winner (who
converted from Judaism and now writes Christian chick lit), is
about as traditional a version as you could want, though the
emphasis here is on Christ’s egalitarianism, his patience, his
embrace of the pariah and the poor. Still, Miller’s theology offers
no doubt about what is required in order to live in the light:
Since Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the garden(a story he parses
pretty literally), people have been born bad, hard-wired to be
sinful, and therefore deserve his wrath. The only way out of this
wretched estrangement into become disciples of the crucified Jesus,
and, in turn, to spread the good news to the ‘lost.’

For the nonevangelical secular progressive, here’s where
Miller’s new brand of Christianity turns from promising to
downright repellent. Who are these lost? Well, for starters,
Buddhists (with their deity’s ‘fat guy buddha belly’), Muslims
(reading the Koran is like ‘cheating on God’), Jews, agnostics —
the usual suspects caught in the sweep of Christian history. Which
should come as no surprise; after all, Miller is a
Christian writer, one whose purpose is to offer
disheartened evangelicals not new beliefs but a new way to practice
the old ones. So, yes, in the Miller gospel the Devil is real and
roaming the earth; lately, he’s up to no good, making people
gluttonous, lustful, and gay.

Yup, that’s right, though if gay people ‘repent about it and
want to change, that’s great,’ Miller said by way of clarification
in a recent interview: ‘When science says people are born
homosexuals, I would say absolutely people are born homosexuals.
Satan is an unfair guy, he rules the world.’ Miller also writes
about other examples of ‘depravity’ including abortion, drug use,
song lyrics on the radio, newspaper headlines, and so on.

While reading these passages in which Miller charts our moral
decline, one can’t help but conjure images of Hieronymus Bosch’s
Garden of Earthly Delights, complete with writhing
gargoyles, fetid heaps of rap lyrics, and a Planned Parenthood
office belching black smoke in the distance.

Still, the author’s willingness to take risks when it comes to
contemporary politics makes his books a worthwhile read. He’s
broken ranks with the Republican Party, he condemns trickle-down
economics and SUV culture in the face of global poverty, and,
paradoxically enough, he urges American evangelicals to stop
determining acceptability to God on the two hottest buttons in
politics — abortion and gay marriage, which he says are just
trumped-up battle cries ‘that have hijacked the church in the most
disgusting way.’ They may be sins, Miller argues, but heaven knows
they’re not the only ones.

Donald Miller book titles

  • To Own a Dragon (with John MacMurray),
    forthcoming
  • Through Painted Deserts: Light, God, and Beauty on the
    Open Road
    , 2005 (revised version of Prayer and the
    Art of Volkswagen Maintenance
    , 2000)
  • Searching for God Knows What, 2004
  • Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian
    Spirituality
    , 2003
  • Bonus: You can download MP3s of Donald
    Miller’s sermons at Imago Dei church in Portland at
    www.imagodeicommunity.com.
    Miller’s home page is
    www.bluelikejazz.com.
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